Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks outside the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School in Chicago, Thursday, March 21, 2013, about the planned closing of public schools. (AP Photo)
CHICAGO (AP) -- Officials at the nation's third largest school district defended the closure of some 50 Chicago public schools, telling a federal court on Thursday that budgetary issues and the underuse of many buildings — not race — drove decisions about which schools to shutter.
The testimony came as Chicago Public Schools sought to persuade a judge not to issue an injunction halting the plan. The Chicago Teachers Union and parents pushing for the injunction before the new school year begins say the closures inordinately harm black and special-needs kids, violating their rights.
The hearing — in its third day on Thursday — stems from several lawsuits filed on behalf of parents. One contends black children make up about 88 percent of students being moved from closed schools, although they comprise 42 percent of district students.
On the stand Thursday, Chicago Public Schools' budget director, Ginger Ostro, told U.S. District Judge Judge John Z. Lee that a $1 billion deficit in the next fiscal year loomed over the district as it thought through its closing plans, which were approved in May.
The closings would save $40 million, which would then be kicked into improving education for displaced students at their new schools. The district would spend tens of million more on schools taking those students, Ostro said.
Critics say talk by city and schools officials of budgetary savings is misleading, leaving the impression that the closures will help address the yawning budget deficit. Pressed under cross-examination Thursday, Ostro conceded the closures weren't designed to fix CPS' financial mess.
"It's not primarily a budget-deficit initiative," she said about the closings. Instead, the aim was to "better focus our resources rather than spread them thinly across."
Later Thursday, the district announced that it was laying off 2,113 teachers and support staff. It attributed the action to the failure of the Legislature to reach a deal on pension reform.
Adam Anderson, a Chicago Public Schools planning official, testified earlier Thursday that what guided the district as it decided what schools would be closed was how much classroom space wasn't being used.
A complex "utilization equation" was employed in the process, and the district found there were some 500,000 available classroom seats for 400,000 students, leaving 100,000 seats unused, Anderson said.
Enrollment has fallen over the years with a corresponding fall in population in African-American areas, which is why so many of the schools that ended up on the closure list were in predominantly black neighborhoods, Anderson said.
One of the lawsuits, however, argues the consequences have a racial element, saying "white children ... have been almost universally insulated from the negative educational consequences of school closings."
Also Thursday, the head of security for CPS, Jadine Chou, told the court the district is implementing measures to ensure street gangs don't pose a threat to students attending new schools. Opponents of the closures say those students may end up stepping into the line of fire of warring gangs as they walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods.
The security upgrades in the wake of the closings include a commitment from Chicago police to dispatch extra patrols around schools taking in the displaced students, Chou said. More parents also will be recruited to help monitor walking routes to and from the schools, alerting police if they see trouble, Chou said.
Still, under cross-examination, Chou denied the upgrades suggested the district accepted the argument that the closures will put students entering new schools at greater risk of violence.
"It doesn't necessarily mean danger. ... We are taking steps to prevent potential risks," she said, emphasizing the word 'potential.'
Testimony in the injunction hearing was expected to conclude Friday. Judge Lee would then take at least several days to go through the evidence and announce his ruling.